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Murray's ascension into GM role has benefited Sens

Right or wrong, the Ottawa Senators fired General Manager John Muckler over the summer even though, under his watch, they reached the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in history. Muckler's gross misconduct was sitting back at the NHL trade deadline under the assumption he had built a winner.

And, in fact, he had.

The Senators finished with more than 100 points for the fourth straight season and sixth time in eight years. They cruised through the first three playoff rounds and won the Eastern Conference. It would have been good enough for almost any other team, but owner Eugene Melnyk had an entirely different perspective:

Good enough wasn't good enough.

Former head coach Bryan Murray assumed Muckler's place in the big chair and ex-assistant coach John Paddock took over the top job behind the bench. You might say everybody else in the organization snapped to attention. Gone with Muckler was any possibility of suffering the dreaded Cup hangover.

The only thing sickening about them this season was their 13-2 record going into the weekend, the 26 points in 15 games matching Buffalo's start last season. Ottawa took the night off Thursday in a loss to Washington, but it could win 65 games this season. None of it matters unless the Sens win the Cup. Detroit won a record 62 games in 1995-96 before moping home without a ring.

For now, Ottawa is class of the NHL. The Sens have one eye on the big prize and another on the future, confirming teams with the proper vision can focus on the primary goal and maintain chemistry. It was the Sabres' biggest fear -- and their biggest flaw -- last season as they marched forward in the league and backward as an NHL visionary.

If anything, Murray's work upstairs has strengthened the Sens rather than destroy them. The Senators signed Dany Heatley, Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza to contracts totaling $115 million. Heatley and Spezza will be among the highest-paid players in the league next season despite taking hometown discounts.

Melnyk uses a different term: Stanley Cup discounts. He's giving his best players their share and a chance to win it all. It sounded good to Wade Redden, who already has said he'll stick around for less dough next season. His stance isn't going to win him any friends in the NHL Players' Association, but it might win him the Cup.

Isn't that the goal for everybody?


Union man

Now that he's retired, Eric Lindros has positioned himself for life after hockey as an ombudsman for the NHLPA. Lindros was heavily involved with the union during the offseason and played a large role in hiring new chief Paul Kelly.

Lindros' career was a cautionary tale. He brokered his own trade to Philadelphia after Quebec selected him first overall in 1991. He was shipped to the Flyers for five players, including Peter Forsberg, a first-round pick that wound up being Sabres backup goalie Jocelyn Thibault and $15 million.

Once the most celebrated young player in the game, Lindros suffered at least eight concussions and never played a full NHL season. Over his final six seasons, he appeared in only 67 percent of his team's games. He finished with 372 goals and 865 points in 760 career games over 13 seasons, won the Hart Trophy in 1995 and was a six-time all-star.

His greatest contribution might have been drawing attention to the NHL's concussion problem. The league began establishing current guidelines largely because his absence made it a serious issue. The first thing Lindros did after announcing his retirement was give $5 million to the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario.

"One thing I would do more is stickhandle with my head up," Lindros told reporters with a smile. "I did the best I could in the time I had to play, and I enjoyed every minute of it."

Question: Does Big E belong in the Hall of Fame? Answer: Nope.


Mess joining Hall

The best thing about Mark Messier's induction into the Hall of Fame on Monday -- other than celebrating the Moose, of course -- is that the public isn't going to be forced to endure another hour-plus ceremony.

Messier enters the Hall with Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens and Ron Francis. They have four minutes apiece for their speeches, which hardly is enough but better than the 77-minute retirement party for Messier three years ago in Madison Square Garden. He later had a 37-minute ceremony in Edmonton.

You can't help but admire Messier, who should never apologize for showing his passion or revealing his emotions. His career lasted a quarter century and included 694 goals, 1,887 points and six Stanley Cups. He was the only player in history who captained two different Cup winners.


Off the Walz

The Wild granted checking line center Wes Walz an indefinite leave of absence last week, which raised questions about whether he was having serious personal problems. In fact, the 37-year-old appears to be contemplating retirement.

Walz, minus-5 in 11 games, has not been in contact with his teammates since a 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 30. He played poorly in that game and failed to keep up with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who combined for three goals and seven points. Walz had considered retiring three other times in the past three years.

"You're going to quit because those two guys do a number on you? They're pretty good against everybody," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said. "Heck, there might only be eight coaches left if we all decided we couldn't coach against Crosby and Malkin. To me, [Walz] can still win faceoffs and he can still skate."


Stempniak struggling

Blues coach Andy Murray tinkered with his top line last week in hopes of jump-starting his other forwards, including West Seneca native Lee Stempniak. The former Dartmouth star, who led the Blues with 27 goals last season, had just one going into the weekend.

Stempniak is playing with veteran center Keith Tkachuk and winger Jamal Mayers. Tkachuk was between Paul Kariya and Brad Boyes on a line that combined for 17 goals and 41 points in the first 13 games. Stempniak had been playing with center Jay McClement, who had one goal and three points going into the weekend.

"I'm at the point now where I've just got to play hard and things will take care of themselves," Stempniak said. "Goal scoring is a streaky thing. Hopefully, you get out of the funk sooner than later."


Ducking the issue

Scott Niedermayer began skating on his own last week, the first sign he could be coming back after enjoying an extended offseason. Niedermayer hasn't set a timetable on when he would make a final decision, but look for him to return.

Niedermayer was physically and emotionally spent (see: hangover, wicked) after leading the Ducks to the Stanley Cup last June. Unlike other players on the team who have not won the Conn Smythe Trophy, the Ducks will give him all the time he needs. Anaheim was 6-8-3 going into the weekend.

"You look at the big picture, of where the standings are sitting, and they're right there," he said. "There is a long way to go yet. There are a lot of games, and a lot of hockey, left to be played. I have a time in my head. I'm not really going to share that with anybody. Is it the middle of December? Maybe, maybe not. Could be sooner. Could be later."

Translation: See you in three weeks.



Flyers defenseman Chris Therien on the retirement of Lindros, an ex-teammate: "I like Eric and I'm trying to be fair to Eric, but he never lived up to that hype. He never delivered. Eric was a tragic case of an athlete in Philadelphia. He's the biggest "What If" player I've ever seen."


Around the boards

*Kevyn Adams' season is all but over. The hard-working center, acquired in an offseason trade to kill penalties and lead the Blackhawks' younger players, blew out his knee in a win over Columbus. Adams, raised in Clarence, was looking after South Buffalo native Patrick Kane, whom he had taken under his wing.

*Scoring was down across the league from last season, but it's still better than it was before the lockout. Teams combined for 5.6 goals per game through the first 220 games, down from 6.1 last season but better than 5.0 in 2004-05. Over the same span, goalies combined for 32 shutouts. It was 25 last season but 43 the year before the lockout.

*Concussed Bruins winger Patrice Bergeron, slowly coping with a face-plant by Randy Jones, made a plea for common sense when it comes to hitting from behind. "Something needs to be done," he said. "I'm sure no one wants to be in my position right now. At the same time, it could be worse. I'm actually walking."

*Columbus' Pascal Leclaire entered the weekend with a 7-2 record, a 1.12 GAA, .957 save percentage and five shutouts. People point to Ken Hitchcock's defense-first philosophy, but goalie coach Clint Malarchuk's work should not be overlooked. "We get along so well because he's a little goofy," the former Sabres netminder said. "Just like me."


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